Originally created 07/03/05

Owners face dilemma over fate of historic sites



In mid-May, demolition crews at Paine College quietly began razing the old house of one of Augusta's notable former residents.

Today, an empty lot is all that remains of the childhood home of Frank G. Yerby, a 1937 Paine College graduate and author who gained fame by writing several novels, including The Foxes of Harrow.

Although Paine College officials had intended to restore the house after Augusta businessman Alan Collier donated it in 2004, plans changed when a contractor discovered asbestos, lead and structural problems, said Dr. Marvin Yates, the executive vice president of Paine College.

Despite all their efforts, supporters of the Yerby house couldn't prevent the building from meeting the same fate as many old, abandoned buildings in Augusta - an appointment with the bulldozer.

"It's sort of sad that his house is no longer here," said Corey Rogers, a historian at the Lucy Craft Laney Museum of Black History. "I have a feeling we take history for granted."

Others might share that observation. Like the Yerby house, there are dozens of historically important but neglected buildings in Augusta whose owners must determine whether to renovate or demolish.

The old John S. Davidson School on Telfair Street, built in 1934, has been vacant since the new John S. Davidson Fine Arts Magnet High School opened in 1997.

Today, the windows are broken and signs warning visitors of asbestos are fixed to the doors.

The Georgia Medical Center Authority tried to persuade the building's owner, the Richmond County Board of Education, to sell the property, but last year the board declined.

School board officials are looking at several possibilities for the property, including demolishing the school for the construction of a new magnet school, said school board attorney Pete Fletcher.

What happens to buildings such as the old Davidson school could affect the average person more than one might realize, according to local historians.

"I think historic sites, buildings and places are psychic shocks to our consciousness," said Dr. Edward Cashin, the director of the Center for the Study of Georgia History at Augusta State University. "They make us aware of the fact that we are not alone."

Historical buildings shape a city's identity and remind its residents of the past, he said. Dr. Cashin compared caring about historic preservation to opening a book.

"If you don't open it, you don't learn much," he said. "If we simply become aware of what (historic buildings) are, then we can learn about the culture, the standards of the past. They're books waiting to be opened. They're just begging, really, to be read, in a way."

Preservation enhances quality of life and adds variety to the cultural and architectural landscape, said Sonny Pittman, the chairman of the Augusta-Richmond County Historic Preservation Commission.

"And being able to reach back and touch our heritage in a tangible and personally meaningful way gives us a sense of permanence and community," he said.

As for the Yerby house, construction will begin this summer on a two-story replica that reflects the home's original architectural integrity and design. The building will serve as a conference center, library and repository for Yerby's artifacts, according to Paine College officials.

Preservation is also a good way to utilize existing infrastructure and to invest in parts of town people already visit, instead of building in new or expensive areas, said Erick Montgomery, the executive director of Historic Augusta Inc.

One property Mr. Montgomery calls "very vulnerable" is the old train depot at Reynolds and Fifth streets.

Although he hopes the city, the property's owner, will incorporate the existing warehouse and depot into future plans, he is worried developers will level it.

"This is one of the few (depots) that's left," he said. "Augusta was the first place in Georgia the railroad was built. Our railroad history is important."

It is uncertain what will happen to the old depot, but Augusta has several success stories of historic buildings saved from the wrecking ball.

In 1997, Augusta businessman Clay Boardman restored Enterprise Mill, a 12.68-acre, 260,000-square-foot former textile mill built in 1881.

Razing the textile mill for new office space would have been the "purely financial" thing to do, but Mr. Boardman said he was interested in the mill for its history.

The mill now houses businesses, upscale apartments and the Augusta Canal Authority - tenants attracted to the facility because of its unique style and character, he said.

Renovating Enterprise Mill has civic advantages, he added.

"It's showed other people that preservation can work out and be good for the city," he said.

Mr. Boardman also owns the Widow's Home and John Houghton Elementary School, both on Greene Street, and has hired contractors to clean up the properties in hopes an interested party will renovate them.

One of the city's oldest Baptist churches has undergone substantial renovation work over the past three years. Grant money, private donations and free contract work have allowed workers to restore the 153-year-old Union Baptist Church on Greene Street.

The church is an important part of Augusta's black Baptist history, Dr. Cashin said.

"It would have been a whole chapter in our history lost if that had been torn down," he said.

But for every success, there are failures.

In May 2003, the roof of the old Augusta Hotel at Broad and Sixth streets collapsed after years of neglect. The city was forced to tear down the rest of the three-story building.

After the collapse, the hotel's owner, Augusta businessman Tim Shelnut, said he had battled for years with the Augusta-Richmond County Historic Preservation Commission to renovate part of the hotel for an upscale restaurant, but the commission rejected his plans.

Renovation and restoration attempts aren't every property owner's first inclination, however.

"Restoring buildings sometimes presents some challenges people are not familiar with and don't want to deal with," Mr. Montgomery said. "It probably is, in some cases, easier just to start from scratch with a raw piece of land."

Restoring historic properties can require a "great deal of creativity," added Paul King, the owner of Rex Property and Construction Management.

Besides a higher price tag and a longer time commitment than starting fresh with new construction, contractors also must consider safety issues, such as meeting fire code requirements during historic restoration projects, said Mr. King, who is also a board member of the Downtown Development Authority.

Historic preservation also can affect economic development.

State and federal tax credits and property tax abatements are available to many property owners who restore historic properties, Mr. King said.

According to former Augusta Mayor Bob Young, "heritage tourism" is the fastest growing tourism segment in the country.

Although historic preservation can be an important part of economic development, not every old building can be saved, he said.

"There really has got to be some economic justification for preservation because the resources are so limited," he said.

People enjoy touring restored homes and visiting natural areas that have been preserved, but getting people involved in the initial states of preservation is challenging, Mr. Young added.

"There's no magic formula for preservation," Mr. Young said. "It's driven by community interest."

Reach Kate Lewis at (706) 823-3215 or kate.lewis@augustachronicle.com.